While there is some dispute about whether the Sazerac is America’s oldest cocktail, it can be generally agreed upon that it’s very much a New Orleans tradition. After all, the drink isn’t in high rotation on cocktail lists at many North Carolina restaurants. What I find is most people haven’t heard of it at all, or know very little about it.
My admission: The first time I heard the word “Sazerac” was in an old episode of “The Andy Griffith Show.” Andy takes the new county nurse Peggy out to a fancy restaurant in Raleigh. There she orders a “Sazerac” and encourages Andy to get one as well, telling him it’s a New Orleans kind of thing. She tries to get Andy to order the snails, too. As I recall, and this is strictly from memory, good ol’ Ange declines both — going for a beer and steak.
Sometimes you just can’t take the Mayberry out of the boy.
I can also admit never trying a Sazerac myself (I have sampled snails, however . . . meh, OK if you like that much garlic). New Orleans remains on a bucket list of places to visit, but it’s a very, very big bucket. It is, however, where my parents spent their honeymoon in June of 1958. My longtime friend dating back to elementary school Brad Dunlap swears by both New Orleans and the Sazerac so I’m sure I’ll sample both at some point. In my experience Brad’s not usually wrong and even if he is, you’ll never convince him of it.
Anyway, I was intrigued recently when I noticed on social media that Haw River Farmhouse Ales, one of my favorite craft breweries in North Carolina and the only one as yet in Alamance County, had concocted a special project as part of a “High Country Cocktail Series” in conjunction with Peabody’s Wine and Beer in Boone. It’s called Sazerac and this is how the the folks at Haw River Farmhouse Ales described it on the brewer’s Facebook page.
This one’s something special, folks — a rye Belgian golden ale made with NC-grown malted barley & rye from our buddies a Riverbend Malt House, aged in Willett Rye whiskey barrels for six months, then blended with a variety of absinthe-inspired ingredients, like fresh fennel, star anise, allspice berries and fresh lemon peel.
Very appealing. I wanted to try one immediately. But there was a problem. It was only going to be released at Peabody’s in Boone starting on March 25 — or available by order from the Boone company. Only a small amount was brewed so not many bottles were expected to be sold locally in Alamance County — if any were to be available at all.
Fortunately, several days ago I received word that a bottle or 10 made it to Company Shops Co-Op on Front Street in Burlington. By the time I was able to get there a handful of bottles were still available. I managed to snag three 16.9 ounce bottles.
I’m so glad I did.
Saturday it was the star of a casual evening with friends from Raleigh we invited over to help give our patio a spring christening, exercise my spouse Roselee’s outdoor pizza oven and belatedly celebrate our friend Mark’s 50th birthday, which had actually passed a couple of weeks ago. We had a wine and beer tasting. I saved the Sazerac for the occasion. Good call on my part. It was simply outstanding and a highlight of an afternoon and evening full of laughter, good conversation and great food.
With an 8.8 ABV, we didn’t want to drink too much of it — we had some delicious pizza ahead — so one bottle was plenty, especially with a few other beers still to come. I had a hunch the Sazerac was going to be special so we sampled it first. Another good call.
Coppery in color, a tad cloudy and with a light foam, there was a strong rye whiskey taste that was more than offset by the combination of allspice, anise and fennel. It had the effervescence of beer but no real distinctive beer taste. It was refreshing in a way whiskey cocktails seldom are.
It was a rye cocktail, but not really. It was a beer, but not exactly. I think Mark and I agreed, it was fantastic. Mark’s assessment: “This whiskey-beer is very good.”
Unfortunately it spoiled us for the brews that would follow. A shame, really, a couple of those were pretty good, too.
So in a way, I had a Sazerac and a beer — meeting fictional Andy Taylor and his county nurse girlfriend halfway.
But now I really need to get to New Orleans and try the real thing.